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Aaron and Jack, a pair of graphic novel-loving 8-year-olds who attend different Brooklyn elementary schools, have become fast friends in the past two weeks.

After New York City’s public schools shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, their parents began organizing virtual activities, including a book club and debate team. The twice weekly Zoom meetings have been a welcome distraction from the scariness of being at the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

“They got on Zoom for the first time. They just started talking and wouldn’t stop,” said Bernadette McHugh, Jack’s mother. “They’ll read aloud from the book that they all know by heart and they show each other pages.”

Parents have been scrambling not just to keep their children’s schoolwork moving, but also to create opportunities to socialize through virtual play dates and other shared online activities.

Such efforts took on more urgency on Wednesday, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced all city playgrounds will shut down.

Zoom Pranks

Families are often trying to navigate this while trying to keep up with their own jobs (or dealing with job loss) in small spaces where many are jockeying for devices. It’s a massive challenge in the age of social distancing with an uncertain end, as schools are closed until at least April 20.

Teachers are also trying to figure out ways for their students to maintain connections. That can be a difficult prospect given they’re just getting up to speed on the transition to remote learning and figuring out how to navigate streaming meetings with apps like Zoom, which can be spoiled by pranks or other inappropriate student behavior.

Brooklyn mom and social worker Carrie Cohen came up with the idea of a virtual book club after she posed a question to her son Aaron about what activities might keep him active — maybe a sport they could play together outside?

“I just wanted something like sports for reading — I love books,” Aaron said in an interview, before counting the 15 books on his shelf that are signed by the authors.

Twice a week for about an hour, Aaron, who is in the third grade, and a handful of other students huddle around their computers and talk about their favorite books or debate a topic. One favorite book series includes Dog Man, which comes with punny titles like “Fetch 22” and “Lord of the Fleas.”

“I’ve read it like a billion times,” Aaron says — though that hasn’t kept him from eagerly talking about it with his friends facilitated by questions that his mom or other students help write.

Virtual Debates

The group of students include Aaron’s classmates from the Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a K-8 citywide gifted and talented program in Bensonhurst, as well as children in other grades and schools, like Jack, who goes to P.S. 39 in Park Slope.

They participate in virtual debates, on topics ranging from whether students or their parents should get to control screen time or whether the sun or the moon is the better object. (For the record, the sun team won, even though it will explode one day and devastate everything on Earth, Aaron noted.)

Jack is a member of the book and debate clubs. Credit: Courtesy of Bernadette McHugh

The parents help moderate, making sure that their children don’t talk for more than a couple minutes at a time or interrupt each other.

Aaron and his mother have tried other methods of keeping up social bonds, including painting rocks with rainbow colors and dropping them on the stoops of families they know around their neighborhood on the border of Ditmas Park and Kensington.

But it’s hard to disguise the reality, especially when the grocery store is out of all the favorite ice cream flavors.

“I just know there’s a virus out, and it’s making a lot of people sick, and we shouldn’t go near each other,” Aaron explained. “It’s basically like the flu times 100.”

Social Bonds Tested

Keeping up social bonds is important for childrens’ well-being, said Deanna Kuhn, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College.

“The social emotional damage to children is potentially significant,” she said of the coronavirus.

That damage may be amplified by families’ lack of access to technology.

Just as the digital divide — as well as parents’ tech savviness — is a concern for students’ ability to keep up with academics, it can also pose problems for children trying to stay in touch with their peers.

The city has estimated that about 300,000 children lack appropriate devices for online learning, though officials have been rushing to fill that gap. There are also countless families who have to share devices with parents or siblings — and time for socializing might fall to the wayside when other work gets prioritized.

Although McHugh counts herself lucky that her son is getting a chance to interact with his friends, she still worries about the long-term effects of school closures on her son’s well-being.

“It’s funny, and it’s happy, but every time I see it it’s so sad,” McHugh said of the book and debate clubs. “It reminds you that they’re missing a whole world that you’re not a part of.”


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